Sigma Alpha Epsilon, the college fraternity with a prized pipeline to the halls of power, has banned the initiation of new members after at least 10 deaths since 2006 were linked to hazing, alcohol or drugs at fraternity events.
"As an organization, we have been plagued with too much bad behavior, which has resulted in loss of lives, negative press and large lawsuits," said Bradley Cohen, head of the national governing body. "We have taken our bloodline for the fraternity — our new members — and treated them as second-class citizens."
Fraternities have suffered from scathing investigative reports in The Atlantic magazine and by Bloomberg News, among other news outlets. SAE has been called America's deadliest fraternity and its initiation techniques likened to Guantanamo Bay by former members.
The chapter at Maryland's Salisbury University came in for particular bad press in the Bloomberg report and has been suspended from the campus. Maryland Sen. Jamie Raskin has sponsored a bill that would criminalize hazing even if it occurs with the victim's consent.
The SAE ban is on the kind of initiation rites that might last weeks and require aspiring members to endure everything from burdensome chores and humiliating skits to beatings and forced alcohol consumption.
Going forward, SAE will elevate prospective members to full-member status immediately upon acceptance and will use the time instead for educational activities, such as résumé building, interviewing techniques and training in public speaking.
When the ban was announced on the fraternity's 158th anniversary earlier this month, some expressed concern that the secret rites would simply go underground. But Mr. Cohen promised that those chapters that violated the ban would be disciplined.
While some expressed concern that eliminating the crucible of pledging would weaken the bonds between members, other participants in campus Greek life said that if students knew they no longer had to fear the pledging process, more might participate.
Logan Connor, a senior government and politics major and SAE president at the University of Maryland, said his chapter is excited about the change, which he called an important "paradigm shift."
"We were established for the benefit of men, education and service," he said in a telephone interview. "This is a return to that.
"Our pledge process was a great thing, and I loved it. But to be honest the pledging process is a little antiquated, and it was not there when [SAE] began in 1856," said Mr. Connor, who hails from Chesapeake Beach.
He said he attended a presidents' conference a month ago where the idea was introduced, and he was surprised how much support it had because he had expected some resistance. "This is a return to what our ideals were," he said.
"We were viewed as such a malevolent organization, and that has to change," he said. "And I don't think six weeks of pledging makes me a better person or bonds me to a brother. Getting up at 8 on a Saturday morning to do community service, that's what bonds me to a brother. You have memories and a sense of accomplishment."
SAE has 240 campus chapters, 14,000 college members and 190,000 living members. It is those living members that are the prize — many are at high levels in Wall Street, business and government and provide a hand up to graduates. But Cohen said more than a quarter of its dues and revenues go to pay insurance premiums that have skyrocketed because of student deaths.
Other fraternities abandoned the pledging process in years past, but sometimes that decision has been met with resistance from alumni, who resent the change and withhold donations.
It is no surprise that the old guard would think its ways were the best ways. But it is hard to justify a process that requires you to endure physical pain and public humiliation before you are allowed to be my friend.
"I hope other fraternities follow our lead," said Mr. Connor.
Susan Reimer's column appears on Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @SusanReimer on Twitter.com.To respond to this commentary, send an email to email@example.com. Please include your name and contact information.